In his excellent new book, Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, Edmund Fawcett asks a fair question: If the Left is so smart, how come we’re not in charge? Since John Stuart Mill’s lacerating characterization of conservatives as the “stupid” party, many opponents of right-wing politics have delighted in simply mocking the vulgarity and dogmatic prejudices of their foes. But time has shown that we do so at our own peril. Lobbing grenades without understanding our adversaries is a foolhardy endeavor.
On today’s political right, three late German thinkers loom large: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. All three wrote their most important works between 1850 and 1950, a time of transformative rise and Luciferian fall in Germany, and despite major differences, all three expressed profound discomfort with the egalitarianism and libertinism of modernity.
For stalwart defenders of capitalist hierarchy like Jordan Peterson, illiberals like Adrian Vermeule, and of course the alt-right, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt furnish the intellectual armor to do battle with the Left. Ironically, the reactionary trio has also had their fair share of left-leaning fans and interpreters — which makes examining and critiquing their work all the more important for leftists today.
Nihilism and Hierarchy in Nietzsche
Every elevation of the type “man,” has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society and so it will always be — a society believing in a long scale of gradations of rank and differences of worth among human beings, and requiring slavery in some form or other. Without the pathos of distance, such as grows out of the incarnated difference of classes, out of the constant out-looking and down-looking of the ruling caste on subordinates and instruments, and out of their equally constant practice of obeying and commanding, of keeping down and keeping at a distance — that other more mysterious pathos could never have arisen, the longing for an ever new widening of distance within the soul itself, the formation of ever higher, rarer, further, more extended, more comprehensive states, in short, just the elevation of the type “man,” the continued “self-surmounting of man,” to use a moral formula in a supermoral sense.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche is far and away the most influential of the three, both because of the powerful effect his ideas had on Heidegger and Schmitt, and his immense impact on culture as a whole. He is also a rarity among German philosophers: reading him is a pleasure. Nietzsche had a genuine sense of humor and loved nothing more than to drop in counterintuitive turns of phrase.
Through the years, many ostensible left-wing thinkers and movements — from countercultural artists to post-structuralists and feminists like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler — have drawn on Nietzsche, too. This would have likely surprised the Antichrist, who prophesized an end to the egalitarian “slave morality” of Christianity (along with its progeny, liberalism, and socialism) and the emergence of the noble and aristocratic supermen in their place. As Malcolm Bull puts it in Anti-Nietzsche, “equality has no fiercer critic than Nietzsche, whose ‘fundamental insight with respect to the geneaology of morals’ is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself.”
At the heart of Nietzsche’s outlook is a concern for the problem of nihilism. In his mind, nihilism was the inevitable consequence of a fall from the honorable, fierce aristocracies of yore and their replacement by Christianity, which postured as a religion of compassion and pity for the weak, poor, and humble. Far from being based on love, Nietzsche argued, Christianity was a kind of Platonism for the people, giving voice to their resentful belief that the real world was so filled with evil and suffering that it could only be justified if an eternal world existed above and below.
In this eternal world, the suffering inflicted by the aristocrats, the wealthy, and the violent would be meted out against those who had been powerful and arrogant in their mortal lives. It’s no accident that in The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche pays great attention to Tertullian’s comment that one of the great joys in heaven will be witnessing the suffering of the damned in hell. Unable to achieve revenge in this life, the weak will get to enjoy it eternally in the next one.
Some leftists have looked favorably upon Nietzsche’s anti-Christian animus, seeing it as an emancipatory weapon against oppressive moralism. But Nietzsche had something far different in mind. He felt that the desire for emancipation and equality was simply the continuation of the Christian theological project under a new, secularized guise.
Since the French Revolution — the “continuation of Christianity,” as Nietzsche put it in his notes for The Will to Power — the leveling impetus of the slave morality was more universalized than ever, bringing with it the decay of institutions and noble individuals who alone could provide a sense of meaning in a nihilistic post-God world. This was true of liberalism, and especially socialism, which held that the weak, sickly, and unworthy should unite and take over the world to end exploitation and dominion. For these doctrines, Nietzsche had nothing but contempt:
Whom do I hate most heartily among the rabbles of today? The rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence — who make him envious and teach him revenge. . . . Wrong never lies in unequal rights; it lies in the assertion of “equal” rights. . . . What is bad? But I have already answered: all that proceeds from weakness, from envy, from revenge. — The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry. . .”
Only an unequal system, Nietzsche argued, could produce truly creative souls with life-affirming values. These values could not be judged morally in a nihilistic world, but only according to the one metric left after the death of God: aesthetically. For Nietzsche, the great-souled man will inevitably use others as his clay in tremendous and often terrifyingly violent projects — indifferent to, if not directly hostile toward, the mostly worthless masses whose primary value is being put to use by the coming superman. The inferior masses, Nietzsche was saying, should simply accept their exploitation by their betters.
Schmitt and Heidegger on Modernity
It would be too much to call Nietzsche a proto-Nazi. While he has profoundly influenced fascist and far-right movements, Nietzsche’s disdain for nationalism, antisemitism, and strident individualism resist the caricature of him as a Nazi thinker advanced, among others, by his own sister.
The same can’t be said for Schmitt and Heidegger. Both were active members of the Nazi party, and both played a significant role in legitimating it. Ironically, despite accusations by figures like Jordan Peterson that any defense of Marx or Marxism is virtually an apology for mass slaughter, Schmitt’s and Heidegger’s political commitments haven’t kept them from influencing the contemporary right.
At the center of Schmitt and Heidegger’s reactionary politics is a critique of modernity. This takes a number of forms: skepticism of humanism, anxiety about relativistic individualism’s privileged place in modern morality, alarm at the rise of the chattering classes and “idle talk” in liberal representative democracy, and, above all, contempt for the declining commitment to existential struggles that generate authenticity and meaning.
Like Nietzsche, Schmitt and Heidegger are committed to the idea that overcoming the limitations of modernity means supplanting the two great modernist doctrines of liberalism and socialism with a new kind of total nationalist politics directed by the leader figure or, more vaguely, the “spiritual mission of the German people.”
Neither, then, had much good to say about liberalism or socialism. For Heidegger, writing in the Introduction to Metaphysics, they were both “metaphysically the same” in their materialism and egalitarian concern for human welfare. When you boiled it down, the so-called great debates between liberals and socialists were ultimately technical disputes over how to build and distribute better refrigerators.
Schmitt, while more nuanced, would have largely agreed with Heidegger. For Schmitt, political struggle was and should be at the core of human life since it provides a grandiose, homogenizing sense of meaning for groups of people. Politics binds us together by constructing an ultimately theological view of how the world should be and contrasting it with one’s political enemies. It was in part through the (frequently violent) struggle against political adversaries that a shared identity was forged.
According to Schmitt, the great error of liberalism was supposing that politics could be overcome through talk in representative institutions, which made it both hypocritical and weak. Marxist socialism was little better since it emphasized the historical significance of class struggle as an engine of meaning. But in the long run socialists also wanted an end to meaning-giving political struggle, which would be transcended — along with alienation — in the economic democracy to come.
Schmitt ridiculed this life as one of managed, bureaucratic hedonism where state officials would assume the role of caretakers and stifle the grander, frequently violent impulses of humankind.
Reactionaries, Liberals, and Socialists
Unpacking the German reactionaries’ writings — among the most profound and disturbing arguments for right-wing politics available — serves a purpose beyond critique. It can also help sharpen our understanding of left politics.
Recently, I’ve argued that liberalism and socialism have important intellectual affinities, even if they represent distinct political traditions. Both view human beings as moral equals and, as opponents of traditional hierarchies, advocate as much freedom as possible. Liberalism falters in blanching at the thoroughgoing pursuit of not just political but economic democracy.
But both doctrines stand in stark contrast to the reactionary views of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt. For all its differences, the trio was united in holding that the modernist project is a fundamental danger precisely because it permits too much equality and freedom. Existence can only be meaningful with the presence of hierarchy, whether between individuals (Nietzsche) or with the withering away of nihilistic liberal democracies in the face of more spiritually attuned nationalist, unified polities (Heidegger and Schmitt). This could only be achieved by eliminating dissident enemies within and without, along with uniform subordination to the “spiritual mission” that reactionary intellectuals laid out.
We’ve seen the horrifying consequences of this project over the twentieth century, which almost buried the reputations of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt with them. But the triumvirate blossom evergreen because they will always appeal to those who see the drive for more democracy as a danger to be confronted and defeated. Grappling with their ideas and appeal is vital to countering their efforts — and advancing the humanistic project of securing equality and freedom for all.